Copa America Group A: Colombia, Costa Rica the teams to beat
The Copa America is set to kick off, with Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay and hosts the United States getting things underway. Here is what to expect.
Arguably the most difficult group of the four, each match in Group A should be tense and hotly contested. Following up on their dazzling display in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, Colombia should be considered the favorite to win the group with James Rodriguez leading the way. They will be joined by fellow CONMEBOL nation Paraguay, who performed well in the last two editions of the Copa America, reaching the final in 2011 and the semifinals last summer in Chile. They will also be joined by CONCACAF's Costa Rica and the host nation United States. Costa Rica's remarkable era continues under new coach Oscar Ramirez, while Jurgen Klinsmann is in need of a positive display after a disastrous 2015 to placate a disgruntled U.S. fan base.
Must-see game: Colombia vs. Paraguay
These two CONMEBOL nations know each other quite well and the tactical battle between Argentine coaches Jose Pekerman and Ramon Diaz should be fascinating. In addition to James, Colombia boast attack-happy Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Bacca, but they will have their work cut out for them against Paraguay. Traditionally stout in defense, there is enough up top to make the Paraguayan counterattack a lethal one, with Derlis Gonzalez the pick of the litter. Liga MX fans will recognize the names in the back as well; Toluca's Paulo da Silva and Club America duo Miguel Samudio and Pablo Aguilar will be tasked with halting Colombia's high-flyers.
Key player: James Rodriguez, Colombia
Yes, it is the obvious pick but this is a huge tournament for the Colombian playmaker. The 2015-16 season has been a rough one at Real Madrid, as he has largely been kept on the bench under Zinedine Zidane. With rumors of a move this summer, including a potential transfer to Jose Mourinho's Manchester United, James will be keen to spearhead Colombia in attack and show clubs around Europe that he is worth the substantial price tag. James has often mentioned how "supported" he feels when playing for Colombia, and there will certainly be no shortage of backing when they take the field on June 3 against the U.S. in Santa Clara.
Dark horse team: Costa Rica
Oscar Ramirez has his team just where he wants them: under the radar. From back to front, the squad is largely made up of players who feature in Europe's biggest leagues, with a sprinkling of Major League Soccer and Costa Rica's domestic league as well. Simply put, the Ticos won't be afraid of anyone, as was the case two years ago in Brazil. Joel Campbell is a handful for any defense, and Real Madrid's Keylor Navas, arguably the best goalkeeper at the Copa America, will be in net. Even though Ramirez lacks experience on the international stage, his tactical acumen is impressive, evidenced by his guiding Alajuelense to two straight CONCACAF Champions League semifinals in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Prediction: 1. Colombia, 2. Costa Rica, 3. Paraguay, 4. United States
Colombia's talent, combined with the experience and savvy of head coach Jose Pekerman, gives Los Cafeteros the edge in this competitive group. After a disappointing quarterfinal exit in penalties to Argentina at the 2015 Copa, Colombia will be eager to show that Brazil 2014 was not a one-off. Costa Rica and Paraguay will battle for the second spot, and when push comes to shove, the Central Americans will have enough to finish above the Guarani.
Perhaps it might have been different for Paraguay, but the unfortunate injury to key midfielder Nestor Ortigoza will see Ramon Diaz's men on the outside looking in, as his absence will be felt both during the run of play and from the penalty spot. The play of the U.S. in the last 18 months does nothing to suggest that Jurgen Klinsmann's men will advance. This will be a rough tournament for the hosts.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .